They got the beat
The Fugees' set at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin last month was one of the more anticipated gigs of the weekend--with good reason, too, not just the result of undeserved hype that follows every band into Austin in March like bad body odor then disappears with the first gust of wind. The Fugees are indeed a great band--hip-hop by way of soul by way of reggae, an oddly sloppy hybrid that makes so much sense you wonder why no one thought it first--and, at the very least, joked some without a laugh, their mere presence lent some much-needed color to a conference critics call So by So White.

At South by Southwest, the Fugees--Wyclef Jean, Prakazel Michel, and Lauryn Hill--had been scheduled to be among the first acts to inaugurate the outdoor stage at the new site of Stubb's barbecue joint. But, as luck would have it, as soon as the band took the stage at 8 p.m., the long-dry Texas skies opened up and dumped rain on the band, its equipment, and an anxious crowd. The plug was pulled, and that was going to be that. But an hour-and-a-half later, the Fugees reappeared in front of a crowd that had waited patiently, and the band put on a show that proved hip-hop need not be anchored to a studio--that sparks can fly when turntables and live musicians are rubbed together on a stage.

There was genuine passion in the Fugees' too-brief set, soul within the showboating, funk mixed in with the frenetic pacing. The show was sloppy--songs and beats seemed to collide for no reason, bumping into each other in the rush to finish a set already way late--and occasionally ugly, but such imperfections only added depth to a sound usually dependent upon technical precision. "Everybody thinks rap is pass, hip-hip is one-dimensional," Lauryn Hill exalted from the stage, "but this is how we do it." And then she broke into song--"Killing Me Softly," to be exact, the dreary piece of '70s schlock-soul that made Roberta Flack a star and made Helen Reddy jealous and all but killed R&B for a decade or two.

Hill found the notes and pinned them to the wall that night, her voice soaring above the thick bass lines and heavy percussion; she's an R&B singer fronting a hip-hop band, an angel in white walking untouched through grimy streets. And as she performed, hundreds of people packed into the field and in front of the stage while a smaller crowd, swaying and grinding in time with the music, lined the bridge suspended just behind and above the stage, content to feel even if they didn't get to watch.

--Robert Wilonsky
The Fugees perform at the Bomb Factory April 4.

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